Chaparral Green Thumbs Update for May

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Contributed by Jolene Ottosen for the Chaparral Green Thumbs

Is May Long Weekend Too Soon to Plant?

For many, May long weekend is the gold standard for when to put your garden in, as long as there isn’t snow on it. But is that true? The reality is that while that date is great for some plants, for a few it is almost too late, while for others it is too soon.

When deciding when to plant, there are a few factors to consider:

  • Are you planting seeds or seedlings?
  • What are you planting?
  • How much attention are you willing to give your plants?

When I was growing up on the farm, our garden went in as seeds into the ground all on the same day. It was watered well for the first few weeks, then nature got to take over, unless it was a particularly dry year. Depending on what you are growing, for many things that works, but for some things, you have to give yourself a bit of an advantage by either starting seeds early inside or buying bedding out plants.

Planting seeds in the ground is the cheapest and easiest, but not always the best depending on what you want to grow. You can buy bedding out plants but depending on the size of your garden, that can be expensive. This year I finally bought a grow light, but I have to admit that it is more for perennials than vegetables. Aside from my tomato plants, I am a pretty lazy vegetable gardener.

Direct Seeding Outside

If seeding directly into the ground is your method of choice, there are a few things you can do to help your seeds along, especially if you are planting a little later in the season than you would like.

Seeds, whether you collect your own or purchase them, are in a dormant state which water brings them out of. Watering dry seeds after they are in the ground will work for most plants, but you can help speed the process up by soaking seeds for at least twelve hours ahead of time to soften the hard coating that has formed around them. Larger seeds with harder shells, like beets, will probably need to soak for a longer period of time. Some sources I have found recommend leaving these kinds of seeds in for up to 48 hours while others say never more than 24. However, all sources agree that you are only soaking the seeds to soften the outer shell enough so that it opens and allows the seed inside to get wet, and not leaving them in for long enough for the seed to actually germinate, so don’t forget about them for a week!

If the outer shell is really hard, like some melons or gourds, you may want to speed up the softening process by nicking or scratching the outer casing to make it easier for water to pass through. This can be done with a small knife or sandpaper. Particularly stubborn seeds can be treated with acids such as sulphuric acid or gibberellic acid-3 (GA-3). You should, however, consult an expert before trying this, as overexposure can kill the seeds.

If the seeds are small, you can soak them on paper towel or paper coffee filters. The suggestions I have read recommend picking the seeds off and planting them, but I wonder if you could make your own seed tape facsimile by tearing the paper towel into strips before soaking in a little water. The seeds should double in size and stick to the towel as long as there isn’t too much water, and then you could just plant them, paper towel and all.

Another suggestion I have seen is to soak small seeds in a container with water, then transfer them to a squeeze bottle, along with some of the water. As long as you continue to shake up the contents, you should be able to squeeze it right in to your rows and have a fairly even distribution. One caution with this method is that you will probably have to thin out your rows later on.

Transplanting Seedlings

If you have decided to buy or grow transplants, don’t be in too much of a hurry to get them in the garden. Depending on where your plants have been living for the past month or so, they may not be ready for the harsh outdoor stresses they will soon face like direct sunlight, wind, and large temperature variations. Stick them out right away and you might find some of the leaves turning white and then falling off and then the plant stagnates as it goes through a recovery period. Many will survive this, but you will have lost precious growing time so, do yourself a favour and let your plants harden off before they go into their new permanent home.

Start this process by letting the plants dry out a little bit. Don’t let them wilt but get them used to the fact that they will sometimes feel a bit thirsty outside. This works better with larger seedlings and bedding out plants, so use your judgement on this step.

Next, get them used to the outdoors. Even if you use a grow light, they are not totally prepared for direct sun rays or large temperature variations. On the first trip out, let the plants rest primarily in the shade, increasing the time they spend in direct sunlight gradually over the course of a week or two while still bringing them in overnight.

When it comes time to plant try to do the actual transplanting on a cloudy day, or at least later in the day, so the seedlings don’t get too overwhelmed by immediate constant direct sunlight. Water the transplants right away and don’t be afraid to cover if the weather seems cool or there is risk of frost. Too much cold can redden the foliage which in small amounts is okay, but too much cold and leaves will die off completely. For individual plants you can buy plastic cloches or make use of buckets or other materials you have on hand. Row cover fabric of varying density can also be purchased and offers some protection. For plants that have cages or some other support around them, you can even use old blankets or towels.

So, as you can see, while using May long weekend to put in the garden may work for some, it doesn’t for others. Consider what you want to grow and how much work you are willing to do in the process and then make your decisions. As long as you enjoy the end results, that is all that really matters!

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